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Tertiary Education Sector, Australia: The Challenges of The Tertiary Workforce

CXC Global5 min read
CXC GlobalJuly 06, 2023
CXC Global

The tertiary education sector in Australia is an important and valuable member of the local economy. It’s also a key contributor to Australia’s representation on the global stage. We discussed this recently, here.

But the sector is not without its challenges, especially when it comes to talent.

From the rising usage of short-term, casual and ‘insecure’ workers to widespread non-compliance and even wage theft, tertiary education as an industry group, has been a regular news topic in recent years.

Perhaps the sector’s talent challenges are due to the vast categories of roles employed within universities. Perhaps it’s because of the seasonal nature of the sector’s operations. We hazard a guess the challenges facing universities are these factors amongst others.

So today, that’s what we’ll explore.

As immediate impacts of COVID are behind us thanks to vaccines, tertiary education has rebounded from the turmoil of 2020-2022. But what remains is an industry with systemic issues that need addressing. And change isn’t always easy.

Challenge #1: Casual, Short-Term and Contract Talent

A rising trend in tertiary education over the past 20+ years, is to engage casual or non-permanent staff over full-time workers.

The number of casual and fixed term staff in the sector has increased by 89 percent since 2000, while the number of continuing staff has increased by only 49 percent over the same period. Together casual and fixed term staff now account for 66 percent of all persons working in higher education.

Productivity Commission – The Growth of Insecure Employment in Higher Education, August 2020

Systemically, this has been problematic.

And the problems, identified in multiple institutions across Australia, include:

  • Non-compliance with worker statutory rights and workplace agreements.
  • Poor corporate governance, where classifications of workers are often incorrect, and longstanding entitlements not allocated.
  • Inadequate payroll systems leading to ongoing underpayments to workers.
  • A decentralised HR function, so individual departments and faculties run as self-contained entities. This has led to the misclassifying of workers, non-compliance with enterprise agreements, and increasing compliance risks.
  • Individual departments and faculties, who hire volumes of contingent workers on a seasonal or semester basis, need to draw up the same volume of short-term contracts. Our sources told us that in one department alone in a leading Melbourne tertiary institution, 2,000-3,000 contracts per term, for contingent hires were being executed. The potential for inconsistencies, errors and oversights is enormous.
  • Chronic underpayment of wages, superannuation and other statutory entitlements.

The increasing use of contractors and non-permanent workers in the tertiary sector has led to a crisis in the sector, with some universities up for millions in unpaid entitlements.

According to the National Tertiary Education Union’s Wage Theft Report, released in February, higher education workers across Australia had been underpaid by $83.4 million over three years, which includes 34 separate incidents across 22 universities in which a dollar amount was disclosed. The University of Melbourne accounted for $31.6 million of claims from four separate incidents.

Sydney Morning Herald

In this context, the hiring of workers in the sector is now shrouded with uncertainty. Universal change is required to clean up the workplace practices in universities.

Challenge #2: Non-Compliance of Workers

Of course, none of these workforce issues in the tertiary sector operate in isolation.

I mentioned non-compliance earlier, given its irretractable link to contingent and non-permanent talent. But non-compliance is more complex than simply being a ‘general’ contingent worker issue. There are other factors at play. These include:

  • Workers in the sector must have an approved Working With Children Check (WWCC). These checks take time to attain (up to four weeks); time that faculties don’t have, especially if they’re hiring by semester. Risks associated with workers commencing in a tertiary institution without a WWCC are significant and the penalties severe – including imprisonment. That’s aside from the reputational damage to the institution if found to in breach. In some instances, we’ve heard of lecturers being removed from a course, mid-way through the teaching semester.
  • Right to work status. If thorough checks on visas and eligibility to work in Australia aren’t complete, universities also risk losing talent mid-semester and incurring significant fines.
  • With decentralised HR functions, tertiary institutions in Australia typically don’t have an accurate lens on the full scope of the contingent talent in their midst. One institution we spoke to estimated they had 7,000 contingent staff but couldn’t be certain. With inconsistent or incomplete records, and different protocols followed by department or unit, understanding their actual compliance risk profile is incredibly difficult.
  • This is a sector with ‘known’ academics and professionals, at both a local and global level. People whose reputations, work histories and achievements precede them. Believe it or not, this is also a risk. For example, departments or individuals refusing to adhere with compliance standards for hiring, because the individual was ‘known to the university’.
  • Visiting academics also pose an issue for non-compliance. These workers can be engaged for a year, a semester, a month or a lecture. The variables for each are endless. Irrespective of the duration of their tenure, these workers were often from overseas, and don’t hold the relevant right-to-work standards as local hires. When a university is striving to achieve set academic goals and standards, these compliance hurdles can become deeply problematic.

Challenge #3: Workforce Planning

In a sector so heavily reliant on contingent and non-permanent workers, workforce planning tends to be a major issue. By that I mean, it’s often undertaken at the last minute, with very little ‘planning’ involved.

When the university year begins after the summer break, some universities are trying to process thousands of contingent contracts in a short period of time, purely due to poor workforce planning protocols. The last-minute nature of firming up hires for the semester or year places enormous pressure on HR and talent workers, leading to round-the-clock shifts, simply to get all workforce contracts in place. All while trying to ensure compliance standards are met.

The other problem with workforce planning in the sector, is the variety of roles in these institutions. From grounds people to personal trainers, lecturers to esteemed academics. The knowledge, experience and insight needed to achieve successful, quality and compliant hiring is known to be challenging.

Looking here at the best-practice model for workforce planning, universities appear to have little appetite, or capability to apply each of the various stages. Without being able to analyse, forecast and plan worker supply and demand, as well as assess talent gaps and implement solutions, it stands to reason that universities in Australia will continue to struggle to fulfill mandated, strategic objectives.

And with a decentralised HR function, workforce planning becomes a lost cause.

According to the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, universities in Australia are starting to address some of the issues we’ve outlined here. The executive director, Craig Laughton, has stated that the sector is responding with ‘significant improvements’, in the area of underpayments. And this is a start. But there are other major changes needed. From what we’ve learned, these include:

  • Modernisation of processes, and shifting from paper-based HR admin.
  • Simplifying complex, hard-to-interpret employment contracts.
  • Breaking down internal silos, so a macro approach to HR can be achieved.
  • Adoption of quality talent management processes, tailored to the specific needs of the different university cohorts.

There are others. And change, as we all know, can be difficult. But if the sector is to improve its operations, its reputation both here and on the global stage, and achieve its strategic goals, these changes will surely now be considered urgent.


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